FAIRBANKS — When Katrina Nunemann graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks 10 days ago with a Bachelor of Arts in child development and family studies, she completed a 31-year journey marked with joy, tragedy, hard work and motherhood. The winner of the 2017 Gray S. Tilly Memorial Award for outstanding nontraditional student, Nunemann is living proof a college degree can be earned by anyone who has enough strength, determination and patience.
Nunemann said she was humbled and surprised to win the award.
“It felt wonderful to be done with school, because it’s taken me a great deal of time to complete. My advisor, Veronica Plumb, nominated me, so that felt really good, too. She’s kind of been my cheerleader throughout the process of me going to school,” Nunemann said at her office at the Fairbanks Native Association Early Head Start building Friday morning.
The journey begins
Nunemann grew up in Grand Junction, Colorado, married her high school sweetheart, Paul Nunemann, and enrolled at the University of Northern Colorado as an elementary education major in 1986. A year later, Paul’s job with the Air Force brought them to Fairbanks and Nunemann enrolled at UAF, continuing to work toward a degree until the birth of her son, Blake, in 1990.
“I finished the school year but then I took about a 12-year break,” Nunemann said. “I wanted to be very involved in my kids’ school activities, and Blake was diabetic, which was another reason I wanted to stay at home.”
Nunemann had another child, Kyle, and was soon immersed in parent-teacher associations and her sons’ sporting events. She became a soccer parent and joined the board of the Fairbanks Soccer Association while running a newspaper delivery business with her sister.
“We had all the contracts for USA Today, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Seattle Times. My sister and I were stay-at-home moms and had drivers who delivered the papers to all the different companies in town that had ordered them. We even had a driver to Denali Park in the summertime,” Nunemann said.
Nunemann closed the business after 10 years when her sister moved back to Colorado and Blake started middle school.
“He said, ‘Mom, can you get a real job? You’re at school a little too much,’” Nunemann said.
Since Blake and Kyle were doing well in school, in 2002, Nunemann again enrolled at UAF and simultaneously took a position as an administrative assistant at Campfire USA. A year later, she was promoted to director of the organization, which meant longer hours and the challenge of running five different programs.
“It’s a youth development agency, so it was just a really good fit. It really changed my life going there. Elementary education is a wonderful field, but they were so focused on really empowering parents and youth to be leaders, and through them, I became very involved in the Fairbanks Association for the Education of Young Children. That’s where I found out about the early childhood field. I changed my degree from elementary education and switched to child development and family studies.”
Now divorced and a single mother, Nunemann slowly worked toward her degree, taking classes “here and there” as time allowed. Some of her credits didn’t transfer when she changed majors, while some classes had been taken so long ago the credits earned were no longer accepted.
Oftentimes, she could take only one class per semester, but as technology improved, so did her ability to increase her course load by taking online classes that utilized discussion groups, video and other methods of learning.
“When I first started, they didn’t have online classes, but the older I got, the more options the university offered, which made it easier. That’s actually my favorite way to take classes, because you still get the communication of being part of a group,” Nunemann said. “I’m a very visual learner, and I think UAF does a great job of offering different ways to learn to where it’s not just answering questions and taking tests online.”
Tragedy and new beginnings
Nunemann was diagnosed with cancer in April 2009 and finished treatment in August of that year.
One month later, her son, Blake, who was attending UAF as a marine biology and fisheries major, passed away. Nunemann took her current job as the family and community partnership coordinator at FNA Head Start in January 2010 after realizing she needed more time to deal with her grief and focus on her health.
Nunemann said the position also meshed perfectly with her major.
“I really love my job. We work with families, a lot of families, in our Head Start program that are experiencing all kinds of challenges. It could be substance abuse or just the challenges of a parent — of trying to raise children and work and do those things,” Nunemann said. “What drew me to wanting to work with Head Start was that we really acknowledge that parents are their child’s first and best teacher. That means that we have to help support the family, because if a family does well, then their children do well.”
While Nunemann is overjoyed to finally have her degree, she acknowledged higher education is a habit she might not be ready to quit.
“There was a period of time about three months ago when I said I would never go back to school. But then during spring break, there was this weird feeling of being really proud and near the end, and wanting to continue to grow, so I applied for the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopment and related Disabilities Fellowship at UAA,” Nunemann said. “If they don’t select me, then I’m leaning toward a master’s degree in early childhood disabilities, but I haven’t committed to that yet.”
Contact staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7582. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.